Like his characters, author seeks a film

Leonard stresses action, romance

Here’s a timely idea for a book: Blend Somali piracy, moviemaking, a matched pair of lovers, and a rogue Al Qaeda shooter in a hip, fast mix. “Djibouti,’’ Elmore Leonard’s latest novel, is nothing if not topical. If only he’d made his characters less clichéd and more compelling.

Djibouti is a country on the Horn of Africa and the name of the documentary film Dara Barr and her protector, the tall, elderly Xavier LeBo, want to make. Barr has already made documentaries about abused Bosnian women and post-Katrina New Orleans, so Somali piracy seems right up her alley.

On a cruise with Xavier, who is also her cameraman, Dara encounters Billy Wynn, a billionaire oilman, and his squeeze, the model Helene. Billy’s taking Helene on an around-the-world cruise to see whether she can stand up to the stress of such intimacy and so prove she’s fit for marriage. He’s also fascinated by Dara’s cinematic prowess and is eager to help bankroll her Somali piracy flick. Tension mounts as the cinema becomes too verité.

Billy also is a kind of conscience. He’s out to stop Al Qaeda from blowing up a freighter carrying liquefied natural gas. Dara, Xavier, Billy, and Helene wind up buddies and more; the relationships among the couples are some of the better-developed aspects of a book longer on sizzle than substance. These are May-September romances with minimal heat and plenty of stereotypes: Billy’s money is the lure for Helene, while Xavier rediscovers himself as a late-blooming sex machine.

Other players include Idris Mohammed, a handsome pirate chief; Jama Raisuli, a natural born killer whose real name is far more American; and Buck Bethards, Billy’s source for inside dope on planned Al Qaeda attacks. All figure in the buildup to an incident involving that LNG tanker.

Leonard’s sardonic, humorous tone doesn’t jibe with the serious nature of his material. Even though he’s deft at description and comes up with some wonderful dialogue, it’s difficult to buy into so light a touch here.

Not that this book lacks for zing — the characters are often not what they seem, making “Djibouti’’ a thematic relative of the film “Casablanca.’’ In this cinematic novel, the imagery is stronger than the narrative; while the two couples involve the reader somewhat, the bad guys don’t that much.

Still, the bad guys are vividly bad. Here, Dara gives Xavier her read on Jama:

“He told Idris he shot a man for selling cans of soda the man kept on shaved ice. You know why? They didn’t have shaved ice in Mohammed’s time.’’

There are echoes of “Dr. Strangelove’’ (Helene compares Billy to Jack D. Ripper), and when Xavier and Dara discuss their film, Xavier suggests Naomi Watts could play Dara — in a movie about the making of a movie about Somali piracy. Such allusions attest to Leonard’s familiarity with pop culture, but it’s not the same as depth.

“Djibouti’’ winds up being a house of cards: fun to read but insubstantial. You don’t have to read between the lines to tell how badly Leonard aches for a film treatment. Word is he wants “Hurt Locker’’ director Kathryn Bigelow. There would be plenty of action, color, and atmosphere. Whether those would compensate for a lack of characters who matter is a question.

Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer from Cleveland, can be reached at  

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